- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

Railson, like many 17-year-old boys, likes to fish, helps with chores around the house and enjoys hanging out with hisfriends. But there are differences.

Railson’s usual catch is piranha, the feared razor-toothed resident of South American rivers that can strip the flesh from a large animal in minutes. The house he helps to take care of is a wooden hut built on stilts, and Railson and his buddies live in a small village in one of the most remote regions of the world — the Amazon basin of Brazil, hours by boat from the nearest city of any size.

Villages are about the only thing that comes in small sizes in Amazonia, the massive tropical rain forest that extends into nine countries.

Along with the people of the region and their intriguing lifestyle, and the variety of wildlife that I observed during a recent visit, the vastness of the region is unforgettable.

The Amazon jungle sprawls over an area about the size of India. This region is so dense that huge tracts of the forest floor beneath the upper canopy never see sunlight and are blanketed by bushes, ferns and plants that have adapted to life in partial darkness. A tangle of vines that would prompt Tarzan to howl with delight dangles from the highest tree branches. The treetops are alive with colorful flowers that bloom from seeds dropped by careless birds.

Only statistics can convey the sheer size of Amazonia, the largest tropical rain forest in the world. The Amazon ecosystem contains a 10th of the Earth’s vegetation and animal species and a fifth of its fresh water. Its plant life produces a third of the world’s oxygen, which is why the devastating deforestation that is under way has such a major impact.

Statistics also help put into perspective the size of the massive river for which the area is named. At 4,000 miles in length, the Amazon is the second-longest river in the world after the Nile, but in other respects, it ranks first.

It is the widest river, in many places up to seven miles across even 1,000 miles inland. The Amazon has a flow of water 12 times that of the Mississippi. It has more than 1,000 tributaries, 17 of which are themselves more than 1,000 miles long.

Most of my eight-day cruise was along the Rio Negro in Brazil, which contains almost 60 percent of the Amazonian rain forest. Although it is a major tributary of the Amazon, this is no stream. The Rio Negro is close to 18 miles across at its widest point.

Though it lacks the name recognition of the Amazon, the Rio Negro offers advantages to visitors. Because the land through which it flows is not as fertile, the Negro traverses a less developed region of the Amazon basin. Also, its water is too acidic for mosquito larvae to survive, so there are far fewer of those pests.

As for other forms of animal life, about 15,000 species make Amazonia their home.

Even so, don’t go there expecting to see herds, or hordes, of animals. It’s not like an African safari.

Many of the larger mammals have retreated from the riverbanks to less accessible remnants of undisturbed forest. It’s almost impossible to see a jaguar and is rare to see tapir or giant anaconda, those snakes that can grow to nearly 40 feet long and swallow prey weighing 150 pounds.

Yet that still leaves plenty of opportunities for seeing wildlife that most visitors have seen only in zoos, if at all. The giant river otter, three-toed sloth and porcupine are among mammals that may reveal themselves to sharp-eyed intruders into their world.

Wildlife viewing began from the decks of the Motor Yacht Tucano, my home for the eight-day cruise. Gray and pink river dolphins emitted piglike grunts and horselike snorts as they surfaced and dived around the boat. Countless species of birds eyed us warily from their perches on the top branches of trees.

By one estimate, more than 1,800 kinds of birds live along the riverbanks, so it doesn’t take long to understand why their number and variety make the Amazon any bird-watcher’s paradise.

Gazing through his binoculars, our extremely knowledgeable guide, Souza, reeled off their names and described their characteristics. Long-tailed blue-black Greater Ani took flight as the boat neared. Red-billed toucan, red-breasted blackbird, scarlet macaw and green ibis lived up to their names in their many colors.

Once, after listening to what sounded like children laughing in the woods, I saw two parrots take flight. I watched as several hoatzin, their heads adorned by a fan-shaped crest, lived up (or perhaps down) to their reputation as awkward fliers and builders of rather messy nests.

As Souza continued to reel off the names more quickly than I could write in my notebook, I gave up trying to keep pace and finally scribbled, “Another magnificent bird.”

Excursions on outboard-powered launches provided even closer and more varied meetings with jungle denizens. With instruction from Souza, we passengers learned to distinguish caimans, alligatorlike reptiles lying in wait for passing food, from the logs they resemble. Souza used a laser to point out a group of long-nose bats clinging to a tree trunk on the shoreline.

Hikes through the jungle, during which we followed closely behind Souza as he used a machete to hack a path through the thicket, were most productive, but we weren’t lucky enough to see wild pigs or armadillos, which are on the may-see list.

Souza did point to what closely resembled a narrow 3-foot-long branch until two beady eyes identified it as a snake and it slithered off. I marveled at the sight of some of the most magnificent, and largest, butterflies I have ever seen, just a sampling of more than 1,800 species that make the jungle their home. We also came upon a lone representative of 40 species of iguana found in Amazonia.

The treetops often were alive with the chatter and scampering of monkeys. Squirrel monkeys peered down at us as we looked up at them. We heard golden-handed tamarins and the short yipping sound of capuchins as they foraged in the trees, pausing to hammer nuts against branches to break them open. Howler monkeys lived up to their name, emitting noises that sounded variously like a train or the growl of a jungle cat; it can carry for two miles.

I was surprised at the extent to which smaller species can fascinate. Using a flashlight to peer into a hole at the base of a tree, I stared for minutes at a furry, fist-size tarantula hiding there. I spent even more time watching a long, straight column of leaf-cutter ants carrying pieces of foliage several times their size to their underground dwelling. I admired a caterpillar whose body was covered by long, pure-white hairs until it brushed against Souza’s arm and left a dusting of poison that caused temporary swelling and discomfort.

At least as intriguing to me was the very different kind of life encountered during visits to some of the Indian villages several miles apart along the riverbank. Most have from several to several dozen houses made of crudely cut wood planks covered by a metal roof. Small gardens provide vegetables. The surrounding forest adds fruits, nuts and medicinal plants.

No matter how small, virtually every village has a dirt soccer field that often is in use. Many also have a dancing house, usually little more than a wooden platform covered by a thatch or metal roof, where townspeople gather monthly to move to the sounds of the forro and other native dances.

In many villages, a generator provides electricity for playing compact discs, powering TV sets owned by a few lucky residents and providing light after nightfall.

Most of the houses rest on rickety stilts that keep them high enough to avoid being inundated during the rainy season, when the rivers can rise 40 feet or more. A few are floating houses that rise and fall with the water.

People have learned to cope with a waterborne existence for months at a time. They get around in dugout canoes, and when the river is especially high, they are able to paddle through the forest canopy. Those lucky enough to own a few chickens or ducks, or even a pig or goat, herd their livestock onto a raft, where the animals, like their owners, wait for weeks for the water to fall.

As our launch pulled up to each village, a few people, mostly children, came to the river’s edge to greet us. Some shyly offered to sell seed and shell necklaces, wooden rings, woven baskets and other handicrafts. If there were no takers, they quietly walked away or followed us out of curiosity.

Visiting a one-room school, I asked Souza to inquire whether any of the dozen or so children had traveled far downriver to the large city of Manaus (several had) and if they would like to live there. (All replied that they would.)

Souza later explained that though some young villagers try to make it there, they lack necessary job skills and knowledge of big-city ways, and most return to their birthplace.

After spending time in several villages and then in Manaus, I could understand how difficult it would be to move from a jungle environment to a sprawling metropolis of 1.7 million people. The city reached its pinnacle during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when there was an unquenchable thirst for rubber in industrialized Europe and the United States. Most of the world’s rubber at the time came from Amazonia, and the plantation owners and traders who met that demand prospered.

Manaus was carved out of the dense jungle 1,000 miles up the Amazon River to serve as the funnel through which rubber was transported and shipped around the world. The newly wealthy rubber barons built mansions and dressed their wives in the latest fashions from France. Broad boulevards reminiscent of those in Paris were laid out, interspersed by Italian-style piazzas.

As testimony to touches of culture that wealthy residents of Manaus sought to introduce into its largely uncivilized surroundings, a stunning opera house, Teatro Amazonas, was built of marble and tile imported from around the world.

Completed in 1896 in Italian Renaissance style, it rivaled the finest opera houses of Europe in decoration and splendor. Such world-famous performers as singer Jenny Lind and the Ballets Russes made the long journey to perform there. Today, the magnificent building remains as a symbol of the opulence of a former lifestyle in Manaus, and a center for local and visiting artists.

Another structure that was built for a different purpose is the Mercado Municipal, which looks out over the bustling port of Manaus. The graceful cast-iron structure was designed in 1882 after another market, Les Halles in Paris. Its art nouveau grillwork and lovely stained glass also demonstrate the Parisian preferences of the rubber barons.

Most of the vendors at the adjacent fruit and fish markets sell fresh produce brought downriver from the jungle, or fish that were swimming just hours before. Others offer handicrafts, medicinal plants and numerous varieties of manioc, a root vegetable that is a staple of the diet.

The mansions and markets of Manaus are another world from the dense jungle, varied wildlife and small villages upriver.

The word “Amazon” still conjures up images of which legends are made. A visit to this immense, largely untamed territory is an introduction to the reality behind that legend.

Locals, tourists benefit as conservation gains

The amount of oxygen the Amazonian rain forest produces makes a major impact on the world’s environment, as do other factors. That’s why the pace of deforestation is so important — and unfortunate.

At the same time, there are signs that increased understanding of its consequences has prompted limited, but growing, efforts to reverse the trend.

Last year, an area the size of Belgium was cut down. At that pace, as much as 85 percent of the jungle could disappear by midcentury. In addition to timber harvesting, much of the cleared forest is turned into grazing pastures and fields for planting soybeans and other crops. Mining for gold, iron and other metals also strips land of its vegetation.

However, after decades of neglect and worse, the government of Brazil and other entities are beginning to take action. Pressure is increasing on international banks and organizations to stop financing destructive development projects in Amazonia. Brazil’s government has pledged, and begun to act, to crack down on those pillaging the rain forest.

In addition, conservation and educational efforts seek to demonstrate that while productivity of cleared land decreases rapidly, the forests can provide a virtually endless resource of products and income.

Schoolchildren study ecology and the negative long-range impact of deforestation. Visitors from abroad are urged to carry the conservation message home with them and to avoid buying products made of Amazonian wood.

The importance of these efforts extends well beyond the opportunity to visit the largest tropical rain forest in the world. After doing so, I returned home convinced that that goal alone is worthwhile.

The January-to-May rainy season brings heavy but usually brief downpours. That is when rivers rise dramatically and plants and trees fruit and flower, attracting animals to the water’s edge.

The high water enables small boats to reach areas inaccessible at other times of year. Launches often can transport people at treetop level for close encounters with monkeys, birds and other wildlife concentrated there.

During the dry season, usually June to December, rivers run shallow, and white sand beaches appear. Animal-watching is good near pools of water where wildlife congregates, and birds gather to feed upon migratory fish that lay their eggs.

The Motor Yacht Tucano accommodates up to 18 passengers in air-conditioned staterooms that are compact but quite comfortable. The buffet meals are excellent, featuring local produce, fish and other fare.

Crew members are extremely pleasant and helpful, and the guides are eager to share their knowledge of Amazonia.

For more information, call Latin American Escapes Inc., 800/510-5999 or visit latinamericanescapes.com.

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